Why did the psychologist ask a riddle?

"How do you make a band stand? Take away the chairs" or "What has four wheels and flies? A rubbish lorry" are the kind of groan-making riddles you have heard hundreds of times before and could do without hearing again.

That's rather the way that Chris Luckin, head of Blacklands county primary school in Hastings, East Sussex, felt, until he and his pupils took part in a research project with Nicola Yuall and John Bradwell of Sussex University's department of psychology.

After 15 years researching into children's reading and comprehension, Nicola Yuall was aware that, although many children could get the words right, they had difficulty understanding what they had read. Although praised by their teachers for reading well, these poor comprehenders were unable to reflect on the text.

It was a difficulty with which Chris Luckin was only too familiar. "It's a nationwide problem for children between the ages of eight and 11," he says. "They can decode ok, they read the words, but not understanding makes it very difficult for them to acquire the higher order skills they need like inference, deduction and reading for main ideas."

The answer for Nicola Yuall was quite literally a riddle. She found that children who were good at understanding and explaining riddles were superior at reading. "Children adore riddles like 'How do you stop a fish from smelling? Chop off its nose.' We decided to give children riddles training to help them understand the ambiguities - in this case a rotten fish and cutting off its nose so it can't smell - to see whether this improved their general reading comprehension."

Initially, the training was carried out with a researcher using pencil and paper to help children gain insights not just into getting the riddle right but into the process of how they did it - a sort of "debugging" of wrong answers. The training worked. Poor comprehenders showed a significant improvement in their comprehension and began to understand the need to look at alternative meanings. However, the training was too labour-intensive to be easily replicated in the average classroom. So John Bradwell, a researcher with Nicola Yuall, developed a software package for children to train themselves.

Sitting in front of the computer with Blacklands' pupils Olivia and Leigh, both aged 10, he talks them through the programs, then leaves them to carry on. They struggle to answer the riddle "Do you know what happened at the paper shop?". The program prompts them to the answer: "It blew away". Despite the instant collapse of Olivia and Leigh into giggles, it doesn't seem that Leigh really understands why it's funny. But the program asks them to click on a shop made of paper and a place where newspapers are sold. The levels get progressively harder.

"I didn't always understand the jokes and some of these were quite hard, but I did get them in the end. The computer kept asking until we got the right bit," says Olivia.

"I only got one of them on the third go. Now I wish I'd written it down to remember to tell my friends, cos' it was funny, " says Leigh.

When Andrea and Alex have their go, Alex just cannot grasp the double meaning of "Does this restaurant serve fish?" despite the on-screen prompts, but Andrea takes him back through it until he "gets it".

That's one of the advantages of the screen over a teacher," says John Bradwell. "Children seem happier to tell their friends they don't get the joke than they do a teacher, and if they don't understand, the other child tends to go on explaining until they do."

The success of the computer package in improving comprehension is confirmed by Andrea: "It makes me think about the words we are reading. We really have to think about the jokes and I think it helps me with my reading."

Her mother, Geraldine Viness, has heard all the riddles at home and is happy to use word-play with Andrea in their own reading sessions.

"We see it as improving our home-school partnership," says Chris Luckin. "We've seen how much the children have enjoyed the riddle sessions, and teachers will be doing more of this work. They will make riddle books for our forthcoming literacy fortnight - so parents can expect to groan a lot. I do hope that parents will be sending us back their own riddles."

However, although Nicola Yuall is a little concerned that parents might try to use riddles as a test, she is delighted that, after several riddle sessions, poor comprehenders are able to make up their own and improve their comprehension at the same time.

Chris Luckin is convinced that the work the children have already done will show up in next year's national test results, and looks forward to the time when the software is available commercially for use in school.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you